‘Sunshine’ report cards: Grades scattered

Part Two of a series

March 15-21 was the annual observance of “Sunshine Week” celebrating “Your Right to Know” nationwide, led by the News Leaders Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Since then, the shock wave from the coronavirus emergency has led leaders in some states to relax or suspend their open-meetings and records laws. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did so March 16. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also exempted some public bodies in his state from open-meetings rules prohibiting meeting by telephone.

There have been discussions in Florida as well about relaxing the Government-in-the-Sunshine Act’s rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Florida Association of Counties says action could come very soon on that front.

In the first part of this series, Lake Okeechobee News looked last week at Glades County and Moore Haven’s state of compliance with the Sunshine Act; now for their neighbors in Hendry County.

Hendry County: A

LABELLE — Hendry County, being larger and more populous (also having more staff and taxable land) than Glades, has more up-to-date hardware and electronics and thus is able to have a larger web presence and to broadcast not only its own meetings, but those its board has in other communities and those of sub-boards as well. Hendry County utilizes Facebook Live for livestreaming, and those videos are saved on its Facebook home page, not on the website.

• Public meetings: The county commissioners in Hendry mostly split their two meetings per month between the two largest communities in the county. The first is on the second Tuesday of each month, beginning at 5 p.m., in the Clewiston City Commission Chamber at City Hall, 115 W. Ventura Ave. The second is in the Commission Chambers at the Hendry County Courthouse, 25 E. Hickpochee Ave., LaBelle, at 5 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month. They’ve recently met in the Harlem and Montura communities, too. Other meetings “out in the community” will be set in the future. GRADE: A

• Online access: Hendry County maintains an extensive website at hendryfla.net. Not only is it loaded with information about the county, but it is kept updated constantly, and its archive of documents is nearly as good any of the more affluent coastal counties’ troves. Agendas are almost always there in a timely manner, but anyone wanting more information may arrange to be emailed when the biweekly agendas with backup materials are available. Those attachments routinely run several hundred pages and are more extensive than any other county’s in the area except Palm Beach. In addition, staff reports of interest to businesses and the general public have links on its pages. GRADE: A

Clewiston: A–

The City of Clewiston, despite lacking a full-time manager for some months until Randy Martin was hired last summer, did as well as it could prior to that time, maintaining a website well-stocked with information and continuing to livestream meetings on Facebook until City Attorney Gary Brandenburg sounded an alarm about the potential for legal action over ADA access to city proceedings. Subsequently the livestream was discontinued for a time and audio would be available from the clerk’s office. Then the city began putting up video recordings of commission meetings with audio on its Facebook page after a delay for adding closed-captioning; now, it has closed captions within the livestream broadcast. If you click to hear the voices, the captions disappear. Its Facebook page is timely and informative.

• Public meetings: This past year, under City Manager Martin, the Clewiston City Commission has gone to a once-a-month regular meeting schedule, and the commissioners often meet for a workshop during the week prior to their regular session; subsequent workshops are set then. The third Monday of the month is the usual date. GRADE: A

• Online access: “The Document Center is currently under renovation to ensure accessibility by any disabled individual,” says a statement on the home page. That’s because of dozens of lawsuits filed elsewhere in the state since 2016 over access to public records guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA. Some people may find the search functions hard to use, but you generally can find what you need from overall lists. GRADE: B

LaBelle: A

In May 1923, the Florida Legislature created Hendry County, named for early resident and “Cattle King of South Florida” Captain Francis A. Hendry, with LaBelle as its county seat. In 1925, the Florida Legislature chartered the City of LaBelle, which replaced the Town of LaBelle, and D.A. Mitchell was named the first mayor of LaBelle. Currently the City of LaBelle, under the leadership of Mayor Dave Lyons, maintains a website well-stocked with information and up-to-date notes from the commission meetings.

• Public meetings: This past year the LaBelle City Commission has continued its once-a-month regular meeting schedule. The regular business meetings of the LaBelle City Commission are held on the second Thursday of every month at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 481 W. Hickpoochee Ave. Meetings are open to the public and everyone is invited to attend. GRADE: A

• Online access: The City of LaBelle maintains an easy-to-use website with up-to-date information about current issues. The city commission’s agendas appear in a timely manner. If you need to know the weather in LaBelle, it is provided along with the current building codes. Utilities bills can be paid directly from the site. GRADE: A

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